The death of Malcolm McLaren last week has left people debating what the notorious punk svengali ever offered the world, if anything. In sunny England, the land of his birth, “Music Mourns Godfather of Punk” announced the Independent, a fanciful eulogy for a man best remembered in South Africa (and elsewhere) for shamelessly ripping off unsuspecting artists and taking the credit, and cash, for himself. Be that as it may, McLaren had a knack for pre-empting trends – musical or otherwise. Almost three decades ago, he was the first of four global musical innovators who sought to showcase homegrown mbaqanga sounds on the international stage.
After finding fame as manager of bands like the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls, McLaren surprised many in 1983 with his solo debut, Duck Rock. Today remembered for introducing hip-hop to the British mainstream, other tracks on the album, like “Double Dutch”, “Jive my baby”, “Punk it up” and “Soweto” (and the B-side “Zulus on a Time Bomb”) relied almost entirely on local sounds.
Mbaqanga mixtapes and an encounter with American rapper Afrika Bambataa’s Zulu Nation first piqued McLaren’s interest. Already in 1981, as manager of the Afro-punk act Bow Wow Wow, McLaren had ripped off the Mahotella Queens’ “Umculo Kawupheli” for their track “Jungle Boy”. The following year, “the great rock ‘n roll swindler” headed South, recording with local artists at RPM studios in Joburg, with the help of Phil Hollis (who later launched stars like Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Sello ‘Chicco’ Twala) and British producer Trever Horn. According to Billboard magazine in November ’82, “the original intention was to record only one or two tracks in South Africa, but in the end enough material was taped… to fill a whole album.”
Controversially, no songwriting credit was given to any SA musicians. Most famously, McLaren took the Boyoyo Boys’ hit “Puleng” (aka “Pule”) and turned it into “Double Dutch”, which reached number 3 on UK charts, the highest charting single of his career. Claiming credit for himself and Horn, McLaren refused to share royalties with the song’s real authors. Only after a lengthy legal struggle did the Boys receive their dues. Bayete’s Jabu Khanyile, pennywhistle champ Aaron “Big Voice Jack” Lerole and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were all reportedly involved on Duck Rock, though little written evidence exists. Influential music critic Robert Christgau wrote at the time, “I wish he’d thought to mention which specific Africans contributed to which specific tracks. Culture may be collective, but (in this culture) wealth ain’t.”
End of Part 1. Tune in next week for Part 2.